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Shadow Work

The time it takes to install and debug a new program is an example of “shadow work,” a term Ivan Illich coined to designate the consumer’s unpaid work necessary to make a commodity useful—the “learning curve” for a new gadget, for example. The term also evokes other modern shifts of burden from producer to consumer: filling out your own bank deposit slips or tax forms, pumping your own gas, assembling a prefabricated module of furniture, waiting on the phone on “hold,” driving across town to stand in line to pay for an item on sale, the time it takes to remove and dispose of or recycle packaging, not to mention to pay for it. Shadow work, which exists only in an industrial economy, must be contrasted with subsistence, which lies outside that economy. One is exacted by the system of nature, the other by the modern system of production and marketing. Shadow work is one hidden cost of “convenience;” other costs include pollution and unnecessary depletion of resources, trash and litter from packaging, and inflated prices. Convenience items may not really be all that convenient, save labor, or do anything useful at all, because they are designed to make money, not to satisfy real need. Time and fuel lost in gridlock, medicine that makes you sicker, education and media that disinform you and “dumb you down,” and political and professional elites who disempower you and render you dependent upon their guidance, all are further instances of counterproductive modernity.

RELATED TAGS: [Ivan Illich, shadow work, paralyzing affluence, subsistence economy, learning curve of new technology, counterproductive modernity]

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